Johanna Deeksha is a journalist covering health and education for Scroll.in through Report for the World.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you began considering career options, what did you find compelling about a career in journalism?
I was around 12 or 13 when I decided I wanted to become a journalist. At that point, I was just excited about the idea of being able to write for a living. Over the years, I myself battled with questions about identity, inequality, marginalization and social justice, so that increased my interest in making this a career. But, also, I think I have managed to fall more in love with it every year because of the sheer honor of having the opportunity to listen to and tell other people’s stories. And finally, I guess that tiny chance that one could initiate some small difference in someone’s life is what makes it so compelling.
Why is health and education an important beat in India?
I believe it is a very promising time to be reporting on these subjects, because, slowly, we are uncovering the intersections between caste, class and access to these basic rights. So, at this point in time, health and education are probably the two most important beats in journalism. Now more than ever, there is a need for the complete documentation of the unraveling of the shortcomings of our policies and inaction of the administration in these two areas.
In journalism, I guess, expecting a work-life balance is perceived as unrealistic. And being available to work 24/7 is seen as a true reflection of one’s commitment as a reporter. But this past year has really taught me that if, at the end of the day, you don’t have your health, there is little that you can contribute to work as well.
India spends a little more than 1% on healthcare and 3% on education. Now that we are in the third year of the pandemic, health and education are the worst hit. India still struggles with malnutrition, there is inequity in healthcare and rural regions continue to lack even basic infrastructure. With education too, there is a huge divide between public and private sector education, higher education continues to be inaccessible to the marginalized and policies continue to exclude members of the oppressed castes and poor in India. Three years of the pandemic have forced children, especially those in public education to completely give up on education – to a scary point of no return.
In a recent essay for Scroll, you recall your findings on how stress can play a role in the health of one’s immune system and may have contributed to catching the disease. You also mention your worries about communicating about your health with your new editor, who ultimately emphasized “Health before work.” What has this experience taught you about the importance of work-life balance?
It taught me a lot. I truly understood the meaning of “health is wealth.” In journalism, I guess, expecting a work-life balance is perceived as unrealistic. And being available to work 24/7 is seen as a true reflection of one’s commitment as a reporter. But this past year has really taught me that if, at the end of the day, you don’t have your health, there is little that you can contribute to work as well. Yet, even though I have learned these lessons, it doesn’t mean I’m implementing them in my day to day life, it is a struggle trying to find a balance. But just being aware is always a good start and I guess finding the balance is a life-long endeavour in this field.
Followup: What advice do you have for other journalists worried about how their health might impact their work?
Like I mentioned earlier, I think without good health, we cannot give 100% to our work. It isn’t selfish to take care of oneself; it is in fact, our duty to give ourselves that time. I think as journalists, we are in such a hurry to change the world. That can put us under so much pressure to get everything right that we sometimes think it is worth running ourselves into the ground. We make work our lives and can never separate the two. I haven’t learned how to do that so far. But I think it is important to take time to see friends, grab a coffee, play that game of chess and take that walk around the block because all that helps us stay sane. But I also want to point out that putting pressure on ourselves to have that work-life balance can also be taxing, so my advice would be to take it one step at a time.
What has been the most impactful story you have written so far as a Report for the World corps member? Why was it impactful?
I’m only “six stories old” as a corps member so to be very honest, I’m not too sure which story has had the most impact. However, for the story “A new wave of Bahujan solidarity seeks to break down barriers in India,” I received a lot of great responses. Bahujans is a word that refers to communities other than the three dominant varna groups in the Hindu caste structure. Bahujans are severely underrepresented in several fields and I wrote about a few initiatives that are trying to increase representation in the fields of law, economics, management, scholarship and public policy. People appreciated the fact that these endeavors had been documented and that it also threw light on the skewed representation in these fields.
What story in India do you feel has been overemphasized or misunderstood internationally? What story would you like to see receive more attention?
I think whatever attention India manages to get on a global platform is good. Probably, what the international media can do is recognize that there is a representation problem in India when it comes to who gets to tell the story. Just getting a person from India to tell the story is probably not sufficient: it is also important to ensure that the reporter has an understanding of the region and/or the community, and is sensitive to community issues and how they’re discussed.
In my research over the last few months, I have found that there are some diseases in India that are particular to the country, but there isn’t enough research that has been done on it. Some scientists have said that this is because the international community hasn’t invested enough in this research, because these are not diseases that they battle with. IIf more stories are written on such diseases in India, research funding could also eventually go up. And that could have a positive impact in India.
How is your reporting tangibly serving Indian society and or making it a better place?
One compliment that I get often about my writing and reporting is that it is empathetic. I guess if I can continue to be empathetic in my work, at some point it will help make the world a better place, at least in some small way. I also really strive to bring in perspectives of the marginalized. And that, I think, does serve Indian society because there is an utmost need for it.